Today I experienced an amazing opportunity. The chance to have a personal tour of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, courtesy of Lord Tony Hall himself (or Uncle Tony as he seems to be called by those in the know) as well as a cheeky coffee with Tony himself in his office as we talked to him about the future of the business, opera, ballet and the British Arts industry generally. Needless to say, it was an opportunity I would have been kicking myself if I didn’t take, luckily, I took it – mainly thanks to my good friend Andrew ‘Greenfingers’ Gardner sending an email on my behalf!
So how did this happen? A few weeks ago, as Andrew and I were gallivanting around Blackpool charity shops in our wellies in hope of finding a jewel in disguise, an email came through from Keble College Music Society on Andrew’s phone explaining that Lord Hall as director of ROH was an ex-Keblite (the best kind of person you can be) and he wanted to offer 8 Keblites the chance to speak to him and tour the Royal Opera House. Now, what you need to understand is, I know NOTHING about opera. Theatre, yes. Classical music, yes. Poetry, yes. Even dance shows, I know or have seen a few. Opera is an alien world to me, one I (naively I now understand) always expected to be out of my reach, at least for the moment. I imagined it to be a universe reserved for the uber-wealthy, latin-speaking, cultured and haute-coutured contingent of our society. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of the luxury and glamour of it all and I’d happily join them to sip some champagne, but until now, was something which simply seemed a bit outside of the realms of my student loan. Andrew however, loving the finer things in life (mainly smoked salt and tweed jackets), adores the Opera and insisted I went with him. I wasn’t averse to the idea, but I’m so glad that he emailed back my name with his. Who could ever say no to this cheeky little face anyway?
He’s such a babe. Next thing I know, I’m on a train to London to meet possibly one of the most important and influential men in the arts industry, who by the way, is also one of the most intelligent and lovely personalities you will ever meet (I like to think that Keble tends to churn out these types…) and never having been to the ROH before, I’ll happily admit I didn’t quite know what to expect. I imagined it would be beautiful, which it certainly is, but the modernity of the building, along with the immaculately professional and friendly manner of its staff was striking. I also imagined Lord Hall to be slightly pompous, fat and wearing a tophat. Luckily he was none of these things. You would think I would have shook off such assumptions by now, but they creep back in occasionally!
So what was it like? Honestly, the whole place is a stunningly well-oiled machine and I’m not just referring to the 30 tonne sets being carted around on wheels. From Tony straight down to the box office staff, everyone knew exactly what was happening in the ROH at that current moment, where it was heading and what its vision was. Now that’s good management. The man behind this management, Lord Tony was truly inspirational. After working at the BBC, he had clearly transferred many of the things he had learnt and developed in broadcasting to what, at least for some, seems a more outdated area of the arts. Not only was the ROH expanding its access and educating communities and schools about opera, making the Opera seem more accessible to a whole new generation of arts lovers but the ROH had also purchased its own production company in order to film and show their productions within cinemas around the world, all produced, marketed and managed by them personally. More focus is being put upon new media, streaming of operatic scenes, YouTube, the ROH website and online educational resources, all of which are increasing Opera and Ballet’s appeal on a global scale. The ROH was also exploiting its brand like never before, the refurbishment of the venue seeing 3 new restaurants, a bar, a shop as well as 6 private dining rooms bringing in extra revenue. Furthermore, improved fundraising efforts as well as a 96% attendance rate for their productions has pretty much quadrupled the opera house’s income. I think its fair to say there is some serious entrepreneurial spirit going on backstage! Not only this, but I cannot stress how NICE Lord Hall was, a seriously clever guy who has achieved a lot, but who is still really grounded and approachable. One thing that really struck me was his emphasis on the need for a strong team for such success, that such a thing ‘was a team game’. HR Management at its best. I felt like I could hear what he had to say forever, plus, his tie had aeroplanes on. Mesmerising.
We were then taken around the opera house by the hilarious and very lovely Barry Stewart, backstage tours manager for the ROH. What he had to show us was truly jaw-dropping, the amphitheatre itself being the smallest part of the Opera House. THE PLACE IS HUGE. We got to see set being made, and in the prop department staff were working open the Trojan horse for their new and upcoming opera, all about the Trojans…
We also popped up to the costume department, where once again, I was thoroughly impressed by how efficient everything was. Aren’t we creative types meant to be messy and unorganised in a kind of artistically organised way? That’s my excuse for an untidy room out of the window. We even got to see where the Royal Ballet rehearse everyday (their schedule btw is truly gruelling):
And treated to this amazing view of “Landan townnn” from the top of the ROH:
Next, we headed to the amphitheatre via the bar and private dining rooms. Andrew and I especially loved the ‘crush room’ although the bar was so sleek (one day I will sip champagne here, hopefully in the not so far future). Check out Andrew feeling like royalty.
As for the amphitheatre itself, beautiful doesn’t quite cover it. As a cheeky treat, and because we were friends of ‘Uncle Tony’, we were allowed to go and sit in the Royal Box as the technicians did the lighting run for that night’s performance of the ballet ‘Romeo and Juliet’. It looked incredible. We then had an even cheekier gander down Prince Charles personal staircase entrance to his box. Swish.
We even had time for a last minute group shot before we left courtesy of Barry…
What an amazing day. To top it off I grabbed a Bratwurst with Sauerkraut in Covent garden on the way home. YUM.
I now REALLY want to go to the Opera/Ballet/get a job doing events in the ROH. Let the saving/begging begin. 😉
Lots of love